Are young people really staying in Pittsburgh?

MJ Slaby

Published October 12, 2018

It comes up when Pittsburgh population numbers are released and again when someone’s cousin, sibling or high school friend moves away.

It also came up at our 2nd Annual Birthday Bash when we asked attendees to send questions on postcards to Peculiar Pittsburgh, in which The Incline staff to search for answers to reader queries. Incline members then voted on three questions we received at our Bash and told us they most wanted to know the answer to this anonymous inquiry:

Are younger people really staying in Pittsburgh?

It’s a common question, and experts told us they hear it a lot. But the answer isn’t clear-cut. It goes back to data, but also to Pittsburgh history and the stories of families and neighbors.

Dissecting the question

The question itself implies that young people are leaving, said Chris Briem of the Center for Social and Urban Research at the University of Pittsburgh. In a way, that makes sense. Young adults leaving the region defined the 1980s, but Briem said that abated by the end of the decade, so even though it feels like its been true for longer, that’s not the case.

“My first reaction [to the question] is to provide the counterfactual. Were young people leaving before? What’s our baseline comparison before?” added Jim Russell, a geographer whose work includes research on Rust Belt cities. “I say that because Pittsburgh and other Rust Belt cities tend to have very low outmigration rates.”

That includes among young adults, who are the most mobile and the most likely age group to move, he, said, adding that typically, leaving a region is the exception, not the rule. But of course Pittsburgh *was* the exception after the collapse of steel, a story everyone knows all too well, Russell said. “It’s still an open wound.”

That kind of trauma means people here still agonize about a friend leaving or someone’s kid moving away — and then they worry about not seeing their grandkids, he added, saying personal experience drives a perception that young people are leaving.

But other cultural markers prove that not everyone is looking to go, Russell said.

For example, when outsiders move to Pittsburgh, they struggle when Pittsburghers give directions by pointing to where things “used to be.” (In fact, why we give directions using bygone landmarks is even more complicated than Pittsburgh’s roadways.) The simple fact that people still do that and other people understand — even young people — shows that people are staying here, he said.

What the data doesn’t show

So what if the question is rephrased to “Are young people leaving Pittsburgh?”

Data could help with the answer, but it’s not going to give exact numbers, Russell said. U.S. Census data is a benchmark for population change, but experts don’t have as much data as people think they do, Briem added, saying that the federal American Community Survey occurs more frequently, but it’s not as accurate because it includes fewer people and makes estimates.

“One of the most common mistakes that people make is they look at the population number, and if it’s down, they assume youth outmigration is the reason,” Russell said.

That’s not the case, he and Briem agreed.

A decrease in population could mean people are moving away, but it could also mean that fewer people are moving here, Russell said. That’s hard for people to judge, he said, because they see when someone they know moves away, but they don’t know when people decide not to move to Pittsburgh.

Even among outmigration numbers for 25-to-34-year-olds, there’s no way to know if they were from here or not. There’s a chance they came here for college with no plan to stay, Russell said.

So if those numbers don’t work, what does?

It’s not a simple answer, Briem said, adding that he’s spent three decades trying to find an answer.

Russell had one suggestion, but knows it’s not perfect either.

After the 2020 Census, experts can compare the population of 25 to 34-year-olds to the population of 15-to 24-year-olds from 2010. If there were no migration and no deaths, it would remain the same because the group from 2010 would age into the group from 2020. That means if the 2020 number is higher, young adults moved here. But that’s just the minimum number of in-migration, because there is no way to know how many of the 15-to 24-year-olds from 2010 moved away or died, Russell said.

What we know

The City of Pittsburgh has “certainly seen an increase in young people,” keeping in mind that roughly 40 percent of young adults in the city are enrolled in college, Briem said.

Around 2008, more young adults started moving to the region, growing the population, and that has lasted nearly a decade, Briem said. The region hasn’t reversed that trend, but it’s now “treading water” when it comes migration.

A lot of that, not surprisingly, goes back to job openings, he said.

Efforts such as awarding grants to Pittsburgh Promise graduates who return to the area to work and coding bootcamps at places such as TechHire Pittsburgh and Academy Pittsburgh have tried to keep young adults here by aiding with jobs.

It’s also worth noting that Pittsburghers aren’t the only ones worried about young adults moving away.

Russell said he can count on the “march of articles out of Boston” that are “wringing [their] hands about brain drain” at the end of the school year when college grads leave. What that doesn’t show is even though people leave after college, they also move in for jobs and for college. When places do well and young people are educated, people leave cities — from LA to Chicago to NYC, Russell said.

Yes. Pittsburgh, too.


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